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BALLET REVIEW : ABT Returns With Artistic, Financial Woes

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TIMES MUSIC/DANCE CRITIC

First the good news. American Ballet Theatre is 52 and still alive.

Now the bad news. It isn’t well.

The company that limped bravely to the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Tuesday is a company in trouble. Big trouble.

Jane Hermann, the controversial business-woman-boss who took over from Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1990, resigned last summer in an apparent act of desperation--or was it just a mega-huff? She left behind a $5.7-million deficit and an artistic policy best described as a blur.

The knight in battered armor elected to come to the rescue is 38-year-old Kevin McKenzie, until recently an unusually reliable and versatile danseur-quasi-noble on the roster. Together with his newly appointed fiscal partner, Gary Dunning, he is intent on restoring Ballet Theatre to its erstwhile position of eminence (everything, especially in the irrational world of dance in America, is relative).

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The board has given him a nice vote of confidence. It has not given him much money.

A practical idealist, McKenzie finds himself tilting at a lot of formidable windmills. He comes to the job with a hand-me-down repertory, a curtailed season, a savagely reduced touring schedule, a slightly shrunken corps, an ensemble that has every right to feel worried if not demoralized, and aesthetic philosophies predicated on the needs of cost containment.

Under the circumstances, one would love to be able to greet the return of American Ballet Theatre to Southern California with unbridled enthusiasm. The cheer on Tuesday, alas, did not come easy.

Most of it came early in the evening. To open the three-part bill, McKenzie revived Harald Lander’s “Etudes” of 1948. This witty examination of classroom classicism still offers revealing tests of basic technique and uniform style. Despite a smudge here and a glitch there, the current team passed both tests deftly.

Everyone worked hard to make the vocabulary look easy--from the kiddies who demonstrated les cinq positions with pristine gravity at the outset to the elder virtuosos who razzle-dazzled their increasingly complex way to the final reverence.

Christine Dunham brought sophisticated glitter to the central ballerina attitudes , not to mention platitudes. She was partnered with breathless, seamless bravura by Wes Chapman--who reminded us that women and swans own no monopoly on fouettes --and with towering, rough-edged eagerness by Charles Askegard, a novice replacement for Jeremy Collins.

The all-important middle-section of the agenda was devoted to the West Coast premiere of Agnes de Mille’s “The Other,” first performed in Washington last April. No one can underestimate the significance of De Mille’s contributions to American ballet in general, and to American Ballet Theatre in particular, during the last half-century. It would be less than realistic, however, to pretend that “The Other” represents the crowning achievement of her long, distinguished and often troubled career.

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A fairly thorough reworking of “A Bridegroom Called Death” (1978), “The Other” looks like a rather pretentious exercise in morbid storytelling cliches. The musical sources, singularly inapt to these ears, involve an unmatched set of popular Lieder by Schubert, culminating in “Der Tod und das Madchen.” The body languages, all familiar, vacillate between classical maneuver, folksy imitation, romantic posturing and modernist emoting.

There are picturesque moments here, to be sure, especially in the triangular confrontations pitting Roger van Fleteren as Death against Amanda McKerrow as the Maiden and Victor Barbee as the Lover. The allegory ultimately drowns in banality, however, and when the pretty-picture dancing doesn’t trivialize Schubert’s profound music, it contradicts the poetry.

McKerrow magnetized attention as the fragile, ultimately rhapsodic girl in the dirndl. Fleteren projected surprising innocence as the lightweight messenger of night, and Barbee personified brooding strength as his potential victim. Perhaps they should have swapped roles. Santo Loquasto designed the attractive costumes, Jennifer Tipton a moody lighting scheme. One was nagged by the feeling that the performance was better than the work, which, not incidentally, happens to be the only novelty on the Costa Mesa schedule.

Schubert was rather prosaically served in the echo-ridden pit by the baritone Paul Rowe, accompanied at the piano by William Wolfram.

For the less-than-grand finale, McKenzie brought back the flashy and fleshy frenzy of Glen Tetley’s “Rite of Spring.” We last saw it in Los Angeles in 1978, and hoped at the time that we had seen the last of it.

Tetley sends his scantily clad dancers over a lot of primitive, spasmodic hurdles. He keeps everyone very busy--the men doing wormy aerobics exercises while the women concentrate on ungainly stretch displays. In context, Stravinsky’s epochal score, gamely reproduced by Charles Barker and an under-rehearsed Pacific Symphony, functions as nervous Muzak.

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Robert Wallace, replacing the injured Johan Renvall, went through the contortions of the sacrificial boy with admirable stamina and pliant energy. Something went wrong, however, with his should-be climactic coup de theatre. We should not have seen him hitch himself to the trapeze that flings his almost-crucified body onward and upward at shocking-cadence time.

Secondary embellishment was well provided by Kathleen Moore, who wrapped her long and languid body with elan around the hulking resident hunk, Charles Askegard. Nadine Baylis’ stylized decors set the scene sweetly.

Incidental intelligence: The Orange County Performing Arts Center has instituted a sleazy ad campaign that degrades ballet, insults American Ballet Theatre and treats the audience as if it were a collection of backwater yahoos interested only in Madonna movies.

“FEMME FATALE” screams the blurb for “Giselle,” which will be performed this weekend. “Beautiful . . . and deadly. She lures men to their dooms. Meet Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, in . . . a glorious tale of romance, danger and the supernatural.”

Ultimately, we don’t even meet Myrtha. The unidentified ballerina pictured in the ad happens to be Giselle herself, as portrayed by Amanda McKerrow. Argh.

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